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Overcrowded and Overdrawn

The L.A. school district has started the nation‘s most complex and expensive school-construction program without having the money to finish it. And next Tuesday, voters must choose whether to pay for these schools, which are rising all over town, or to plunge the school system into a financial cataclysm.

Measure K, a $3.35 billion local school bond, and Proposition 47, a $13.05 billion statewide school bond, would fund the start and finish of 80 new L.A. schools, and provide seed money for 40 more. Measure K, as a local bond issue, requires a 55 percent majority to pass. Prop. 47 needs a simple majority. L.A. Unified must have voters pass both, because it has already penciled in the proceeds, as well as its share of another state bond planned for next year. L.A. Unified hopes to add 112,000 classroom seats in the next four years, but without all the hoped-for bond money, it won’t happen.

But that hasn‘t stopped the school system from ramping up in a big way.

Ground has broken for Central L.A. High School No. 1, at the old Metromedia property in Hollywood. And in South-Central at the former Santee Dairy. And in the Valley for a high school on the Cal State Northridge campus. The ribbon’s already been cut at the addition to Beachy Elementary School in Pacoima and at a new elementary school in Bell.

L.A. Unified has rolled the dice by investing every penny it can muster or borrow to buy land, hire staff, sign contracts, make drawings and dig holes. In other words, on Election Day, L.A. schools Superintendent Roy Romer is daring you more than begging you. Vote “yes,” he says, and the city gets 120 schools. Vote “no” and the city gets dozens of expensive holes in the ground.

“Here is where I am,” said Romer in an interview last week. “You have such a gross need, and it takes so long to deliver a school. Not to take a larger bite than we can afford would have delayed everything excessively. You had to take a gamble.

”You know, it‘s kind of like I’m a farmer planting a crop,“ added Romer, who once was a farmer. ”You only have fertilizer to plant 400 acres, but you really gotta have 800 acres to make it. You are just waiting to get the second bank loan you need, and it‘s planting time. I think you’ve got to go for what it takes to get the job done, and hope you can convince your banker along the way that, ‘Yeah, that’s the only way this farm is ever going to be successful.‘“

The banker in this case is the voter, who would have ample reason to conclude that Romer and other district officials are, so to speak, full of fertilizer. Five years have passed since voters last approved a local school bond, and for most of that time, the $2.4 billion in Proposition BB was utterly mismanaged. If that sounds harsh, consider that this consensus judgment was reached independently by inside auditors, outside auditors, an oversight committee and even school-district officials.

Prop. BB was intended mostly to repair and modernize existing campuses -- a ”contract“ of promised projects was prepared for every school. But many of the 12,500 projects fell behind schedule. Meanwhile, a plan to ”fast-track“ air-conditioning projects collapsed completely, but not before L.A. Unified had to pay $19.3 million to a Denver-based firm that installed not even a single air conditioner. The new facilities team, which inherited this train wreck, concluded that the budget would fall $600 million short of what was needed to complete promised work. L.A. Unified hopes to plug much of the gap by borrowing cash and with state funds.

Then there’s the $250 million Belmont Learning Complex, the nation‘s most expensive and still unfinished high school construction project. After dragging on for more than a decade, Belmont might also be the nation’s slowest high school project, except that L.A. Unified has taken even longer trying to build a school at the site of the Ambassador Hotel. Romer insists that these two schools will be finished and will stand as examples of the school district‘s new competence and accountability.

And that’s just the appetizer. In exchange for your vote, the school district pledges at least 80 completed schools within four years. Put another way, L.A. Unified intends to build from scratch a school system as large as Long Beach Unified, the state‘s third largest school district, virtually overnight, even though LAUSD hasn’t managed to finish a single high school in more than 30 years.

If past performance were the yardstick, a voter‘s verdict on the school bonds ought to be: No way. But Romer and crew have a compelling trump card: the reality of the overcrowding crisis in the district of 750,000 students.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 students won’t have classroom seats at all by 2006 if the nation‘s second largest school district doesn’t increase capacity. School-board member David Tokofsky, who considers himself a frustrated financial watchdog, is quick to agree that an unacceptable amount of past bond money has been squandered. But he‘s not about to oppose the new bond issues: ”What are you going to do? Not build the schools?“

This effort isn’t about maintaining an unacceptable, barely functional status quo. The driving imperatives are to give all students the option of attending neighborhood schools that are not overcrowded and restoring a full 180-day school year -- rather than the compressed year-round schedules that overtax campuses and cost students a month of schooling every year.

”This is 100 percent a social-justice issue,“ said school-board president Caprice Young. ”It‘s a matter of: What is the right thing to do? The only real question is whether we as a community are going to come together to get this done.“

Remarkably, L.A. Unified has not waited to find out: Seven smaller projects are finished, eight others are under construction, three more are poised to start, and a total of 28 will be under way by year’s end. The district says it controls 93 percent of the land needed for the first 162 projects -- 80 schools, 62 additions and 20 playgrounds.

If the bonds fail, ”We become, immediately, the largest landlord in L.A., without any prospect of building on it,“ said chief facilities executive James McConnell. ”This is not a laughing matter, because that‘s going to be a huge capital drain without any benefit.“

The potential calamity is well-understood by United Teachers Los Angeles, which is urging its members to do all they can to help pass the bond. It’s not just that teachers and students would prosper in better, less-crowded schools. If the bond fails, the cost of stopping construction in midstream -- or trying, somehow, to keep things going with regular district funds -- would hammer salaries and benefits.

Romer and McConnell also cite another cost of failure -- the loss of expertise that has now been assembled, belatedly, to build and repair schools. The resumes of the newcomers are indeed impressive, though confidence in McConnell‘s crew is still more a matter of faith than finished schools. The district’s seven finished projects have added about 2,100 seats -- a fraction of what‘s planned.

Though Measure K is mostly about building schools, it also contains substantial money to repair existing schools and much smaller amounts to pay for safety and security systems, school libraries and charter-school buildings. Measure K would tax property owners about $60 a year for every $100,000 of assessed property value. (Prop. BB already bills $40 for every $100,000 of assessed property value.) Proponents budgeted a $2 million campaign that heavily emphasized direct-mail appeals to registered voters. The school district itself has staged a $1.1 million effort, hanging banners at schools and appealing directly, indirectly and repeatedly to parents in what’s defined for legal purposes as an ”information“ campaign.

Measure K is adamantly endorsed by Robert Garcia, the chair of the Prop. BB oversight committee. In the past, Garcia leveled withering criticism at the district. Now he testifies to concrete evidence of positive change and to safeguards in Measure K that Prop. BB lacked. ”Measure K,“ he said, ”provides more oversight than is required under state law and more than any other local measure in the state.“

Others remain doubtful, such as Brad Sales, a senior adviser to former Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. Sales, who has since left LAUSD, helped plan the campaign to pass Prop. BB, but grew disillusioned in the aftermath. ”I don‘t think there’s been a very good performance based on the building of new schools yet,“ he commented.

In addition, projected costs have crept -- and sometimes bounded -- upward. Just from September to December of 2001, the estimated total cost of high school--related projects rose by more than $141 million, and that was under the new team.

Sharply increasing costs also turned up repeatedly in smaller projects, such as in the installation of air conditioning and of security grills, during a review of project budgets by the Weekly. These enlarged budgets may turn out to be justified, but they call the cost estimates into question, even though, so far, the most recently revised budgets are holding for the handful of completed projects.

Hamilton High parent Shelley Owens doesn‘t see a school system that has ”mended its ways,“ even though she concedes the grave needs. ”I simply don’t trust the district‘s promises,“ she said. ”I will vote ’no‘ on Measure K and will encourage everyone I know to do the same.“

Parent Bruce Phillips was angry enough to deliver a radio guest editorial in which he declared: ”It’s time we stopped enabling a dysfunctional district by giving them billions again.“

Board president Young counters that the school district has made commendable progress academically and elsewhere, while adding that she doesn‘t expect the bond issues to become a referendum on L.A. Unified. This is really about building and fixing schools, she said. Young defends the decision to begin without the money in hand.

”I can understand how people can feel it’s a big gamble,“ said Young. ”From my perspective, we were already standing, looking, at this massive, sheer cliff, walking toward it whether we like it or not. We don‘t have any choice but to learn how to fly. We can’t go back. If we keep walking the way we‘re walking, we’re going to fall.“

If polling numbers hold, the district‘s gamble may pay off. Parent Amelia Jones, for one, is prepared to give her reluctant blessing. ”I have a kid in the system right now,“ said the art-history professor. ”I don’t feel I can vote against it -- for the kids‘ sake. I will vote for it because some small part of it might trickle down to help the kids in school.“

(Dennis Dockstader contributed research and analysis to this article. Other assistance was provided by Nicole Auckerman and Joshua Wachtel.)